SJWs vs. Engineers

This week has had more than its fair share of depressing news, but I had a personally depressing moment yesterday when I saw that one of my favored very nerdy chat groups had an explosive thread about how “social justice warriors” are ruining engineering. This chat group is usually quite apolitical and consists mostly of electrical engineers of various stripes and skill levels helping each other out with their projects. Need a filter with a certain response? Need to know how to safely interface a triac to a microcontroller? Want to know how to write VHDL? Measure the time between two pulses on the order of nanoseconds? Calculate the feedpoint impedance of a certain dipole antenna? This is the place for all that.

Well, for the last couple of days it’s also been the place to hear men complain about Social Justice Warriors who want to ruin engineering by making it more amenable to women.

I don’t have the energy or time to break down what a bunch of toxic baloney such protestation is. It’s been covered well enough in the articles and threads discussing the infamous Google memo.  In short, though you can (and right wingers do) almost always find someone on the left saying something dumb, or, more often, something that requires a effort plus a wealth of context to understand (and typical academic writing exacerbates this problem), questioning why women do not often pursue engineering careers remains perfectly valid. Doing so does not imply that you ultimately expect male/female participation in engineering to be 50/50, but it does mean that you want whatever ratio ultimately emerges to be based on the preferences and aptitudes of the individuals involved, rather than, say, the preferences of their would-be professors, colleagues, mentors, companies they might work for, parents, etc. It also doesn’t mean that there are not systematic differences between the sexes. It only means that each individual’s opportunities depend on their own particular gifts, not the average of some particular group of which they might be a member.

Is this rocket science? Are we seriously still debating this shit?

Part of my consternation comes from my particular boundary-straddling lifestyle. I like to tell people I am an engineer by training and temperament. But I also live in the world of policy analysis and social science. And I’ll tell you, I’m tired of hearing engineers and social scientists insult each other and disparage the way the other group thinks. The reality is that both groups could use a dose of the others’ discipline. Social scientists, particularly ones who want to implement programs, could learn a lot from the grim conservative (small “c”) pragmatism that engineers bring to problem-solving — the understanding that nature doesn’t want your machine (or program) to work, and you have to design your program so that it works despite nature. Similarly, engineers really need to know much more about human behavior, human experience, and history. Knowing how your creations will affect people may slow you down, but it will make your work so much more valuable in the long run with less potential for negative consequences.

Anyway, I want a hat that says “Engineers for Social Justice.”


Liberal Misogyny Detected

I really like insulting Donald Trump and his coterie contemptibles. They’re the worst. The whole administration is a brightly burning trash fire so yuge, it can probably be seen from space. Parliamentarian aliens receiving our radio transmissions on the planet Zepton are right now debating whether they should conquer (or vaporize) Earth on humanitarian grounds.

I really do not like these people.

I insult because I can, because it makes me feel a little better, and because it’s about the only power I have over this administration. In fact, I like insulting Trump so much that I wrote software so that I could insult him hundreds of times a day on each of thousands of other people’s computers. It’s the sort of thing that helps keep me going.

As part of that project, I’ve tried to maintain certain editorial standards for insults. I have three basic criteria:

  1. First and foremost, insults should be funny. Mean is fine, even encouraged, but funny is non-negotiable. That’s why I shamelessly stole the lion’s share of my insults from Jezebel, where a team of professional Trump trollers labor night and day for our benefit.
  2. The second requirement I have for my insults is that they should be specific to the person. A reasonably intelligent person should, with high confidence, know from the insult which despicable person is being insulted. This is reasonably easy for Trump. Nobody will be confused about “Orange Julius Caesar” or “Hairpiece Come to Life”. But it gets harder when you want to go after the rest of the swamp creatures. These are OK: “Angry Second-Assistant High School Football Coach” Pence, “White Nationalist Potato Sack” Bannon, “Apple-Cheeked Hate Goblin” Sessions, and “Eddie Munster Understudy” Ryan.
  3. The final requirement is that the insults not be racist, sexist, or any other kind of -ist. I think this is really a restatement of the first requirement: the insult should be about the person as an individual.

I’ve particularly struggled with Spicer and Conway. They are pathetic creatures, who literally lie for a living. But they are rather generic pathetic creatures, and it’s hard to come up with insults for either that would not be mistaken for someone else. That’s why, in my software, I have disabled them by default. The lists are too short and I’m just not proud of them. Most of the Spicer and Conway insults include references to their job titles or name, which is weak comedic sauce. (Others have lampooned them much more successfully than I have. Melissa McCarthy skewers Spicer brilliantly by showing the ridiculousness of his impotent, misdirected rage.)

Because I am in constant need for fresh insults, particularly for the back-benchers, I created this web form to let fans of Detrumpify help me out. So far, I’ve received more than 500 suggestions. There have been real gems in there (eg: “King Leer”), but also a lot of dreck that fails on the requirements above.

Among all the suggestions, the ones for Conway have been the worst by far, and I’ve not accepted any of them into Detrumpify. Without exception, they refer to how ugly she is, or her sexual organs, or her sexual behavior, or her lack of suitability as a sexual partner, or something cruel (and sexual) that the author would like to do to her. None of this is remotely OK.

Many suggested insults relating to her appearance. I’ve got mixed feelings on this. Very many of the Trump and Trump boot licker insults are linked to appearance. Trump really is orange, and that will always be funny. Sessions really does resemble a Keebler Elf and Bannon does resemble a corpse. Does that mean it’s okay to make fun of Conway’s appearance, too? Yes, I think it does. However, in practice, it’s hard to do so in way that is more specific than simply calling her sexually unworthy.

What kills me is that this crap is coming from my team, the supposedly unsexist one, or at least the less sexist one. Or, at the very very least, the one that is embarrassed of its own sexism and is consciously working against its check own unconscious biases? Oh, no? That’s not happening? Oh, shit. I guess that means we get to squander half our collective talent pool and make massive “Trump Sized” mistakes indefinitely.

So, as we endlessly debate whether sexism was a factor in the 2016 presidential election, I have new reason to feel common cause with women everywhere who have direct “no duh”-level data that sexism is alive and well on the left. I’ve got a spreadsheet full of direct evidence, supplied willingly by sexists who hate Trump. In the words of Der Gropenführer: sad.

PS – Though we don’t see all that much of her these days, I do still very much want to insult Ms. Conway. She certainly deserves it. Who can crack this nut?


Tragicomedy of the Contraposicommons

I was going to call this entry the “Tragedy of the Anticommons” but economists have already coined anticommons to refer to something entirely different than what I want to talk about. (An anticommons is something that would be socially beneficial as a commons, but for reason of law or raw power, is controlled by a private actor to the detriment of most. For example, patent intellectual property.)

Today’s post is about resources that actually become more valuable as more people that use them. This is something like the network effect that many Internet services enjoy, but applies broadly to many societal projects. I’m talking about things like schools and insurance markets, libraries, emergency preparedness, etc that benefit from wide participation.

I decided to write this post after I found out that several of our son’s primary-grade compatriots will not be returning to public school next year. Instead, they will be going to various private institutions. Interestingly, some of the parents took the time to write messages to the left-behinds explaining that their decision was not due to any kind of inadequacy of the school, but just a desire to do “what’s best” for their child.

It’s difficult to argue that a parent should not do “what’s best” for his or her kid, but I’m going to take a shot at it anyway, because that approach to parenting taken to its logical endpoint, is deeply antisocial. And while I think US history doesn’t have many examples of destructive trends continuing “to their logical endpoints,” I fear that this time may be different.

Your child in school is not just consuming an education — he or she is part of someone else’s education, too. In important ways, school is a team sport, and everyone does better if more people participate. This is not only true kids whose parents have lots of spare time and resources to participate in school activities. It is just as true among kids whose parents do not have the time or money to participate heavily. All children bring a unique combination of gifts, talent, and complexities that enhance the learning experience for others. Attending a school with rich participation across the socioeconomic spectrum enlarges everyone’s world view, to everyone’s benefit.

Now, am I asking people with the ability to opt for a private education to altruistically sacrifice their children for someone else’s benefit? I guess the answer is a definite “kinda.” Kinda, because I think it is a sacrifice only if everyone acts unilaterally, and that is the essence of the problem.

You see, there is a prisoner’s dilemma type of situation going on here. If we all send our kids  to public school, we are all invested together, and we will want the appropriate resources brought to bear on their education. The result is likely a pretty good school. But if enough people “bail” the school will be deprived of their children’s participation. Furthermore, “exiters” have a strong incentive not to continue to have significant resources provided to the school. Such resources come from taxes and exiters and their children will derive no direct benefit from them. Perhaps nobody they personally even know will derive any such benefit. (There are plenty of indirect benefits to educating other people’s kids, but that’s another article.) As more and more people peel off, the school is diminished and the incentive to peel off becomes ever greater — the dreaded death spiral. At last the school is left only with the students from families unable or uninterested in leaving. (NB: I am not suggesting that the “unable” and “uninterested” go together in any way, only that that’s who will be left at such a school.)

In the language of game theory, we reach a Nash equilibrium. Everyone who cares and has the means has defected, and the public schools are ruined. The interesting thing about Nash equilibria is that a better and cheaper outcome is possible for everyone if participants trust each other and cooperate. (After all, private school costs a lot and serious studies show that they underperform public schools.) So, I’m not suggesting altruism per se, but something more akin to an enlightened model of cooperation.

But today’s blog post isn’t even about public primary education. It is about the general phenomenon, which I fear is widespread, of people “pulling the ripcord” on important societal institutions and resources — bailing out, to varying degrees, based on their ability to do so. Consider:

  • Gated communities, private security forces, and even gun ownership for protection, represent people rejecting the utility of civil policing.
  • Water filters and bottled water are people rejecting the need for a reliable water supply.
  • Skipping vaccinations are people rejecting the public health system
  • Sending kids to private colleges and universities is pulling the ripcord on state university systems, and the many, many societal benefits that come with them (open research, an educated populace, etc)
  • Uber, and eventually, self-driving cars represent rejecting transit (perhaps shredding a ripcord that was pulled long ago with the widespread adoption of the automobile)
  • Pulling out of subscription news outlets, leaving them to cheapen and become less valuable

Here are some you may not have heard of that I think are coming:

  • Private air travel as an escape from the increasingly unpleasant airline system, with decreased investment, safety, and reliability of the latter over time
  • Completely energy self-sufficient homes (with storage) as an escape from the electric system, with a total cost well in excess of an integrated electric system

Another example: as many of you know, I’ve also been dabbling quite a bit in amateur radio. In that hobby, I have discovered a large contingent of hams who are prepping for TEOTWAWKI — The End Of The World As We Know It. They are stocking up on food, water, and ammunition in preparation for society’s total collapse. What I find upsetting about this is that such prepping probably makes collapse more likely. These people are not pouring their resources into community emergency prep groups nor or they the types to advocate for taxation to pay for robust emergency services. Instead, they’re putting resources into holes in their backyards.

All of these are rational decisions in a narrow sense (even the anti-vax thing) and probably cause little or no harm assuming few others make the same decision. However, once many people start to make these decisions, things can unravel quite quickly. (Regarding anti-vax, these effects can already be seen in outbreaks in certain communities with a high penetration of opt-outs.)

Perhaps some of these are “OK”, even better than OK. People abandoning broadcast television for subscription media is bad for broadcast television, but maybe that’s fine; we certainly don’t owe TV anything. (On the other hand, major broadcast networks that had to satisfy a huge swath of the populace at once were forced into compromises that had certain societal benefits: like everyone getting more or less the same news.)

But I worry that we are in a time of dangerously anti-social behavior, enhanced by a party whose ideology seems not only to reject socialism but to reject the idea that “society” exists at all. In the process, they seem willing to destroy not only social programs that deliberately transfer wealth (social insurance, etc), but also any social institution built on wide group participation. Even among people not predisposed to “exit,” growing inequality and the fear of its consequences may encourage — or even force  — people to consider  pulling the ripcord, too. The result, if this accelerates, could be disaster.

How long until this nightmare is over?

I’m tired of this president already. What an awful combination of idiocy and cunning. To wit, just today from the Moron in Chief’s mouth:

This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.


Anyway, in anticipation of never having to hear about Trump every again, I wrote another little Chrome plugin yesterday. It tells you how many days until this is all over.

You can get it here: Trump Time Remaining

Normally, it’s just a little icon that tells you how much of Trump’s term remains. Here is it set to percent:

If you click on that icon, you get some more information:

That’s really all there is to it. You can change your reference date (election or inauguration) and you can adjust the expected number of terms (please, G-d, let it be just one), and you can change what is shown in the icon: days remaining, days passed, etc. Note that icons can only reliably show three digits, and we have more than 1300 days left, so days remaining may not work nicely in the icon on your computer.

So, how long until this nightmare ends? Well, 1362 days, give or day. Now you know.


Nixon was right


When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

Like most Americans, I’m familiar with this infamous quote, from a Nixon interview with David Frost in 1977. I always considered it an example of the maniacal hubris of Richard Nixon.

The thing is, I’ve come to understand that, at least from an functional standpoint, it is basically true.

What happens if the president breaks the law? Well, he might use his executive powers to direct law enforcement not to pursue it. But if he didn’t, presumably, he could be brought up on charges and a court could find him guilty. If it were a federal crime, he could just pardon himself, but if not, I guess he could even go to jail.

But, can he lose the presidency over a crime?

It seems, not directly. As far as I can tell — and I hope legal types will educate me — the Constitution contains precisely two ways to get rid of a president:

  • an election
  • impeachment

Both of these are obviously political processes. There’s certainly nothing there saying that if you commit a crime of type “X”, you’re out.

Conventional wisdom expects that if the president does something even moderately unsavory, political pressure will force the House of Representatives to impeach him. I would have taken comfort in that up until a few months ago, but now … not so much.

Today’s House of Representatives is highly polarized, and the party in power (by a ratio of 240 / 193) is poised to make great strides towards realizing its long-held agenda. Would they let a little unlawful presidential activity get in the way of that? I don’t think so.

What if their own constituents don’t care about a president breaking some laws that they think are pointless or unjust? Let’s say Trump’s tax returns show up on Wikileaks, and forensic accountants come up with evidence of tax fraud. Are we sure voters will not see that as a mark of genius?

Congress will move to impeach if and when the pressure from that activity gets in the way of their agenda, and not before. That time could, in theory, never come.

I’m afraid that people holding their breath for an impeachment based on the emoluments clause may pass out waiting.

Donald Trump once said this:

Also, probably one of DT’s more truthful statements. (Though my legal team informs me that murder is not a federal crime, so he would not be able to self-pardon.)


Taking things personally

I’m not thrilled with the outcome of this election. I believe Trump will harm America’s interests, its ideals, its place in the world, and many of its people. Many people who voted for him, who are suffering now, will receive no promised relief, and many new people will likely be immiserated. It’s bad, very bad.

But I’m almost embarrassed to say that there is another, more personal reason I detest Trump: his absolute disdain for professionals, facts, and details, for consideration of others’ interests, for a qualitative and quantitative weighing of costs and benefits to various winners and losers. In short: he is a policy anti-analyst, and people love him for it. I am a policy analyst, and his type are my natural enemy.

I have a degree from an institution who’s motto is “Speaking Truth to Power.” I hold that motto dear, as I do the hope that when presented with “truth,” the powerful, will, in good faith, integrate such information and act on it.

Before Trump there was already ample evidence that policy analysis was not getting much traction. I have even written before about how policy analysis itself has become debased, leading to its total disregardability. Corporate communications departments seem to employ the lion’s share of “policy people,” and anyone with an agenda and a few bucks can generate realistic looking “policy analysis.”

In further evidence of the weakness of policy analysis, I have heard the current and former deans of the policy program where I got my degree wonder out loud why more graduates of our program did not end up in leadership positions. The answer, it seems to me, is rather obvious. First, the pathway to modern political leadership is indifferent to whether you know what you are talking about, or if you work diligently to maintain objectivity and an open mind. Policy skills are simply no help. Worse, the temperament that draws someone to the application page of a policy program (plus a few years of his or her life) is probably negatively correlated with power-seeking and leadership.

But this election was something completely new, at least to my generation. Knowing exactly what Trump stood for, many people voted for him anyway, in what amounts to a stunning rebuke of technocratic analysis in favor decision-making by ideology and “common sense.” It was a vote for George W. Bush’s famous “gut-based” style taken to a level that I suspect would give even W indigestion.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump has been assembling a cabinet comprised almost entirely of yes-men and ideologues. These are not curious people. They are policy anti-analysts as much as Trump himself.

Power, it seems, has a lot to say to Truth, and we’ll be hearing all about it in the coming months and years.

So, now, driven into the wilderness, what is the next move for those who prefer reality-based policy? Practically, speaking, retreating to liberal states and organizations is probably the short-term answer — an unavoidable step if policy analysts want to continue to remain employed. However, in the long term we must advance. How?

I can think of two projects that seem worthwhile to me:

First, policy analysts must somehow, as a group, figure out a way to separate hackery from serious analysis, and to make that separation readily apparent to the most casual observer. I don’t know what form that would take. Professional certification? Peer review? Code of conduct? This will be hard, because the ideologues and their paid spokespeople have become masters at painting anybody who disagrees with them as just as interested as they are, turning every conversation into a “both sides do it.”

Second, policy analysts must put aside their cherished memo-writing skills and deep love of complexity, and learn to convey their results differently to different groups. For the electorate at large, it’s time to master the soundbite, and sadly, the Tweet. This will hurt, because real situations are complex, and soundbites cannot properly convey a complex truth. I’ll admit, I have no idea how to do this, but I fear that is part of our collective problem. Maybe graduate policy training should include not only memo-writing, but all manner of modern “propaganda:” billboard, bumper sticker, lawn sign, protest sign, tweet, Facebook post, newspaper op-ed, blog post, 30 second radio blip, 3 minute TV interview, etc. Policy analysis must learn to fit on a smartphone screen.

Anybody else have some good ideas?

Total War?

Mitch McConnell famously said his party’s “number one priority is to make this president a one-term president.” That was in October of 2010, nearly two years after Obama was elected. However, there is pretty good evidence that Republicans plotted an agenda of obstruction from day one.

They pursued a strategy of “total war,” not yielding or compromising on any of Obama’s agenda. How did that work out for them? Well, with today’s perspective, it looks pretty good. R’s in deep red places were rewarded. R’s in purple places did not too bad, certainly nothing crushing. And of course the presidency speaks for itself. Total war did result in significant collateral damage, though: no compromise, no governance — essentially reduced performance of our institutions and the commensurate reduced faith in them to solve problems.

So far, Democrats have gone along with the standard rhetoric of accepting the will of the people, yadda yadda. Which I think for now is fine.

Should liberals adopt a policy of total war?


  • Will probably be effective in stopping/slowing R agenda
  • Will rally base and, potentially, energize party. Nobody likes a bully, but nobody likes people who let bullies roll over them, either.
  • Negotiating in good faith while your opposition as a total war philosophy results in a “ratcheting” effect, whereby when your in power, you get nowhere, and they’re in power, they somewhere.
  • The R’s have already shown their willingness to pursue this approach, so it’s not like D’s holding back will stop them from doing it the next time D’s are in power.

  • Obstruction generally at odds with Democratic principles of governance. Or maybe blocking bad policy is good enough for a minority party?
  • Compromise is the essence of governance, and by shunning it, we validate the idea that compromise is bad.
  • It encourages the same behavior from your opposition if/when you gain power again.

I seriously am not of one mind on this issue. Everything I know about policy says total war is beyond bad. But what I’m learning of politics makes me think it might be the only path forward. Furthermore, it may be that most of the damage from the total war approach may already have been done, which is tragic, but there may not be much to lose from pursuing such a strategy.

On the other hand, this might be a decent short- and medium-term strategy, but as faith in government to solve problems and improve life is kind of core to D thinking, it might be a very bad long-term strategy.

Really, I dunno.

Voices, ideas, and power

So, a day or so ago I was discussing the problems facing a democracy when a group of people, previously able to control outcomes with their vote, lose power. They may, not getting what they want democratically, turn to undemocratic approaches — the dangerous last gasp of a majority group becoming a minority.

Apparently, it turns out that that is not a problem we will have to deal with soon.

But it is with some irony that, tables turned, am today thinking about the limits of democracy. That was not on my mind yesterday morning.

Clearly, I need to come to grip with the fact that I and many of my friends were not hearing a lot of voices, or if we heard them, we dismissed them as uninformed, ignorant, and potentially irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. That is wrong for at least two reasons. First, duh, you end up losing. Each voice comes with a vote attached. But also, it just isn’t OK to dismiss people, even “bad” people. My main weapon against the Trump phenomenon of the last year was utter derision. That made me feel better (and I’m not giving it up) but it didn’t help stop him, and who knows, maybe it even helped fuel the response we saw last night?

If voices cannot and should not be ignored or somehow put on the sidelines, I don’t think the same goes for ideas. Ideas can vary from the brilliant to the disastrous, and we desperately need some way to sort them and then to make them stay where they belong. I’m not talking about censorship. Again, that’s focusing on voices. I’m talking about finding a way to make sure bad ideas are clearly, obviously so to everyone.

This has been a problem since the beginning of time, and it is clear that we are not very close to solving it. Back in olden days we had a system like this:

good idea bad idea
king likes happens, yay happens, disaster
king dislikes does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This turns out not to be fantastic system for decision-making, so we switched over to this:

good idea bad idea
people like happens, yay happens, disaster
people dislike does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This is much better, as people should generally like things that are good, or at least the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision. But if you believe that idea popularity and idea quality are not strongly correlated, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Well, idea popularity and idea quality are not particularly well correlated. This is something that the Framers would have taken as prima facie obvious. The technology of the day would not have allowed for direct democracy, but they would not have wanted it anyway. They discussed this at length and put plenty of checks into the system to make sure runaway bad ideas do not gain power. Most of the time, in fact, I tend to think they put in too many checks. (That I suddenly feel different today says what?)

Well, my theory is that we relied on extra-governmental institutions: newspapers, intellectuals, clergy, to help pre-sort ideas. The most hideous ideas were put in the trash heap long before they became birdies whispering in candidates ears. I grew up in a world where it appeared that elites had pretty good power over ideas. They could not kill them, of course, but they could push them out of certain spaces, and that was good enough to keep them out of the mainstream and the ballot box.

That’s over. Unless the intellectually motivated, the curious, the skeptical, the open-minded, the thoughtful, the trained, the expert, the conservative, somehow reassert power over ideas, things are going to get worse.

How do we do it?

More election nerdism

Keeping up my streak of mildly entertaining, though basically useless Chrome Extensions, I have create a very tiny extension that keeps the Nate Silver fivethirtyeight predictions in your Chrome toolbar at all times.

You can choose which of Silver’s models is displayed, and clicking brings up more detail as well as links to a few other sites making predictions. Check it out!

For those who are interested in such things, the code is up on github. It’s actually a reasonably minimalist example of a “browser action” extension.


On the morality of tax avoidance

People were pretty unhappy when Donald Trump claimed that not paying taxes “makes him smart.” Similarly, nobody was impressed when Mitt Romney claimed that he “paid all the taxes I am required to, not a dollar more.”

What these folks do is legal. It’s called tax avoidance, and the more money you have, the harder you and your accountants will work, and the better at it you’ll be. There is an entire industry built around tax avoidance.


Though I want to disapprove of these people, it does occur to me that most of us do not willingly pay taxes that we are not required to pay. It’s not like I skip out on deducting my charitable giving or my mortgage interest, or using the deductions for my kids. I’m legally allowed those deductions and I use them.

So what is wrong with what Trump and Romney do?

One answer is “nothing.” I think that’s not quite the right answer, but it’s close. Yes, just because something is legal does not mean that it’s moral. But where do you draw the line here? Is it based on how clever your accountants had to be to work the system? Or how crazy the hoops you jumped through were to hide your money? I’m not comfortable with fuzzy definitions like that at all.

What is probably immoral, is for a rich person to try to influence the tax system to give himself more favorable treatment. But then again, how do you draw a bright line? Rich people often want lower taxes and (presumably) accept that that buys less government stuff and/or believe that they should not have to transfer their wealth to others. That might be a position that I don’t agree with, but the case for immorality there is a bit more complex, and reasonable people can debate it.

On the other hand, lobbying for a tax system with loopholes that benefit them, and creating a system of such complexity that only the wealthiest can navigate it, thus putting the tax burden onto other taxpayers, taxpayers with less money, is pretty obviously immoral. Well, if not immoral, definitely nasty.